Dominique Morisseau pays tribute to the hard workers of Detroit's auto industry in her new drama at Atlantic Stage 2.
Once upon a time, Detroit flourished with the sounds of cars being manufactured. By 1924, it was the home of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler (together called the Big Three), providing an economic boom in the form of parts and assembly plants. In 1950, the Motor City's population peaked at nearly 2 million. Strikes, race-related strife, and corporate restructuring subsequently led to factories being formed elsewhere around the United States. Outsourcing and automation led to massive layoffs. By 2008, when Dominique Morisseau's inspiring new play Skeleton Crew is set, the city was little more than a ghost town.
Skeleton Crew is not about the Big Three, as Morisseau notes in the program of this Atlantic Theater Company production at , which is directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. "It is about the small factories that made it possible for the Big Three to exist." Set in the break room of a stamping plant (where sheet metal is shaped and wielded in the automobile-making process), it follows a trio of African-American assembly line workers and their supervisor as they come to terms with the possibility of losing their jobs if their factory shuts down.
Dez (Jason Dirden) has dreams of opening up his own auto body shop, and he is only a few months of overtime away from buying his own garage. Shanita (Nikiya Mathis) is an unwed soon-to-be mom who doesn't know where her future will lead. Faye (Lynda Gravatt) is the elder stateswoman and is too proud to admit that she's fallen on hard times. Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin) must decree orders from management, and we can tell he's uncomfortable doing it.
What Morisseau has written is relatively straightforward in structure; each character has a specific problem that they set about fixing (for Faye, it involves secretly bunking in the break room; for Dez, it involves packing heat wherever he goes). From there, however, Skeleton Crew is anything but conventional. Like Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson before her, Morisseau creates characters who don't merely speak, they sing with the vernacular of their community. Rarely has dialogue ever felt so much like eavesdropping on an actual conversation.
It helps that Santiago-Hudson's production is at level of stark naturalism that befits the text. Michael Carnahan's set is perfectly designed to the point that we can almost smell the rubber and motor oil as it seeps through the concrete bricks. Paul Tazewell's working class costumes define each character's personality. Rui Rita's lighting has that harsh fluorescent light of a factory. Sound designer Robert Kaplowitz provides pulsating hip-hop tunes for the scene changes, augmented with original songs by Jimmy "J. Keys" Keys, who also happens to be Morisseau's husband.
As for the company, they are collectively impeccable. Dirden's bravado hides a surprisingly big heart, while Franklin's internal conflict is pretty wrenching. Together, they have a particularly intense confrontational scene that leaves us on the edge of our seats. Gravatt delivers a brave turn as a tough-as-nails union rep who cares more about the financial situation of her much younger coworkers than she does her own. Perhaps best of all is Mathis, who delivers an innately sensitive performance, beautifully rendering an astonishing monologue about taking pride in her work along the way.
The most distinctive touch of the production is how Santiago-Hudson stages transitions. As the actors leave the stage, the lights rise on Adesola Osakalumi, a b-boy moving in time, with almost robotic precision, to the sound of factory machines. It's clearly a signifier of what's to come as humans are tapped out in favor of machines that can do the same job for free. Skeleton Crew is a fitting elegy to them, the hardest working people in America, who far too often get the short end of the stick.